In Wikipedia on the page dedicated to Walter Pitts (accesses today), it is written that,

He is widely remembered to have spent three days in a library, at the age of 12, reading Principia Mathematica and sent a letter to Bertrand Russell pointing out what he considered serious problems with the first half of the first volume. Russell was appreciative and invited him to study in the United Kingdom.

My questions are,

  1. What were his objections specifically?

  2. Is there any copy of his letter that is freely downloadable?

  3. What was Russell's reply to him? Is there any copy of his letter that is freely downloadable?

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I cannot locate any additional information about the Russell episode, however Pitts apparently had a similar issue with one of Carnap's books. He travelled to the U of Chicago where Carnap enjoyed tenure. Carnap took a copy of his book down from his bookshelf and upon examining the point highlighted by Pitts, he agreed that it was very poorly explained. See N. Smalheiser's paper Walter Pitts. $\endgroup$
    – nwr
    May 23, 2018 at 16:45
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Maybe we have to ask at the Project The Collected Letters of Bertrand Russell hosted at McMaster University. $\endgroup$ May 24, 2018 at 7:09
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ I have already sent an email to the Project Director Nicholas Griffin @MauroALLEGRANZA. $\endgroup$
    – user459
    May 24, 2018 at 9:36
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Godd job ! I hope we can "share" the answer :-) Now I'm very curious... also if my personal feeling is that - if the letter exists - we will not find in it "big" discoveries: maybe typos and some comments regarding "obscure" points of the "philsophical" part of Principia (the more difficult and debated). $\endgroup$ May 24, 2018 at 9:41
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Sometime ago I received Nicholas Griffin's reply to my email. He said, "..I know very little about this, but the topic does come up from time to time. I can tell you that there are no letters either from or to Pitt in the Russell Archives". $\endgroup$
    – user459
    May 25, 2018 at 5:48

1 Answer 1


This story bears characteristic signs of a tall tale, although in this case one can identify the origin. It appears to be an amalgamation of two anecdotes, neither of which is itself very credible. Both are traceable to Warren McCulloch, Pitts's co-author on "A Logical Calculus of Ideas Immanent in Nervous Activity" (1943), which proposed the first mathematical model of a neural network. There is some vague connection to actual events, which might have prompted the story's retelling.

"He is widely remembered to have spent three days" reading Principia in the library, says Wikipedia, without naming any sources of this wide rememberance. Upon closer examination the story is interpolated from Talking Nets by Anderson-Rosenfeld, not exactly a historical work, and the more reputable Smalheiser's short biography of Pitts. Both name McCulloch as the anecdote's source, Smalheiser even references his Collected Works:

"The story is told that, at age 12, Pitts ran into the public library to hide from some bullies, found a copy of Principia Mathematica by the 20th-century philosophers Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead, and proceeded to read it cover to cover in the next few weeks [1]. Pitts experienced a metaphysical insight that logic rules the universe, and as a corollary he felt that ego — and his ego in particular — needed to be erased in order to achieve an understanding of the world."

There is no mention of the letter here, and "the story is told" is an odd way to introduce a story one believes. He then quotes the other story, about Pitts meeting "Bert" in a park in Chicago when he ran away from home at 15 (Anderson-Rosenfeld make him 14 for that). And then

"Now, this Bert talked with Walter for some time of philosophy and mathematics, and came to realize that this was no ordinary youngster. Bert was impressed. He told the boy that Carnap, then Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago, had written a book that would interest him, and urged him to go and speak to the grand old man. So, Walter got himself a copy of Carnap’s book and read it. Later, Carnap was to recount the meeting thus: “This young boy came in to see me and said he had read my book and that a certain paragraph on a certain page was not clear to him..."

Guess who told this story. It was Blum with reference to... McCulloch. This time Smalheiser is even more explicit about its credibility:

"Though the story of meeting “Bert” in this manner may be apocryphal, it is true that Pitts sat in on Bertrand Russell’s course when the latter visited Chicago in 1938, and that he walked into Rudolf Carnap’s office with a marked copy of his book filled with corrections and suggested improvements. After his initial contact with Carnap, he disappeared, and almost a year went by before Carnap was able to contact him again, supervise some of his studies, and help him secure a student job."

In 1938 Pitts was indeed 15, but there is no mention that the marked copy of Carnap's book survived, however. And even if we are to believe McCulloch's recollections, the alleged letter, let alone Russell's reply to it, are additions by later "contributors".


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